Covid's Impact on People of Colour
12 May 2021
We learned during the first wave of the pandemic that the likelihood of catching the virus, and it having a more significant impact on health, differed by race.
By August 2020, it was reported that over one in three (34%) of all critically ill Covid patients were peoples of different ethnic heritage. By November, the BBC reported results of an 18-million-person survey that suggested black people are two times more likely – and Asian people 1.5 times more likely – than White people to be infected.
The critical health data isn’t good. But what about different minority communities’ day-to-day experiences in health, wealth and happiness during the pandemic?
The Unequal Impact
To set the tone for this article, in December 2020 the UK Government published a paper entitled The Unequal impact? Coronavirus and BAME.
The report concluded that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME – their term and not wholly helpful but we’ll use it for consistency) communities have been more acutely affected by the pandemic as a result of ‘pre-existing inequalities in health, housing, employment, and longstanding issues accessing credit, housing and public funds.’
We know from the Health, Wealth and Happiness Report 20/21 – which doesn’t subdivide based on ethnicity – that a person is more likely to have suffered more negatives during the pandemic based on their starting position across all three indices. Let’s probe that.
Health inequalities and Covid
As you’ve read, peoples of different ethnic heritage were more likely to catch the virus, and to experience the virus severely; with adverse health outcomes, including death, more likely.
Genetic links have so far been downplayed - there doesn’t appear to be any physiological variables based on ethnicity at play. The key variables are more to do with one’s health starting point and, closely linked, their economic position.
At Covid’s onset a link was quickly made between the likelihood of suffering the virus more intensely and comorbidity factors. Comorbidity here means obesity, cardiovascular issues, chronic kidney disease and lung diseases, such as asthma or bronchitis.
For a range of socio-economic, historical and cultural reasons – some obvious, some less so – these comorbidity factors are more likely in certain ethnic groups. Contributing to the Government report on Covid’s Unequal Impact, Professor Kamlesh Khunti, said that ‘comorbidity risk factors were disproportionately higher in people of some BAME backgrounds.’
“We know that the prevalence of hypertension is considerably higher amongst black African and Caribbean groups than in the White population, and hypertension’s associated risk of cardiovascular disease may be accentuated in South Asian groups.
Data also shows that Asian and black ethnic groups are more likely to develop diabetes at a younger age compared to White individuals and that some BAME people are susceptible to obesity-related diseases, like type 2 diabetes, at a lower weight status compared to White populations.”
With GP appointments down in 2020, and hospital treatment waiting lists longer than at any time since records began, we can imagine that, at the extreme end, those suffering long-term health complications – who were lucky enough not to catch the virus – almost certainly suffered poor health as a result of the restrictions in Covid’s name.
Where communities are marginalised and face, during normal times, issues accessing care facilities and amenities – as the government report outlines – then during a pandemic we can only imagine more confusion and bleakness.
Wealth Inequalities and Covid
Government data published in 2019 shows that Bangladeshi (£334), Pakistani (£365), and black/ African/ Caribbean (£408) households occupied the bottom three rungs on a table of median household weekly earnings. For white households, the median weekly wage was considerably higher at £518.
Immediately prior to the pandemic, unemployment rates among non-white households were much higher than for White British households and average pay rates were lower - even allowing for differing levels of education.
As reported in the Guardian in October 2020, one in five of the non-white workers furloughed during the first coronavirus lockdown have since lost their jobs, according to a report by the Resolution Foundation.
The report stated that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers were struggling most with redundancies as the government began peeling back its support scheme. The post-furlough fall into unemployment was sorely lopsided - 22% of workers from different ethnic backgrounds fell out of work compared to a national average of 9%.
Working with the thinktank Runnymede, an October 2020 government paper – which was largely researched and written before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – found that
Black African and Bangladeshi households had one-tenth the average level of savings of a White British household and more likely to be living in poverty.
A depressing fact from the pandemic - just as many people of colour were worried about catching the virus as were worried about having enough food.
We also know that one in four (25%) of workers in the gig economy are BAME, compared to 14% of the wider population. Gig economy jobs, especially those in hospitality, were clearly among the first to go when the measures taken in the name of Covid kicked in during the first wave.
The general picture, then, suggests that a low economic and savings base, plus an increased likelihood of suffering job losses and reduced earnings during the pandemic, made the pandemic experience, as it relates to household finances, disproportionately bad for many people of colour.
Happiness inequalities and Covid
According to pre-pandemic government figures, default ‘happiness scores’ don’t differ much when subdivided by race. White, black, Indian, Chinese … our happiness levels are largely consistent.
But according to the charity Rethink, certain minority groups are at a greater risk of suffering more extreme unhappiness and poor mental health. Black women, for example, are more likely than the general population to experience anxiety or depression, while older South Asian women are an at-risk group for suicide. Black men are more likely to experience psychosis, and black people are more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act.
If only to flag up the inequalities again, during normal times, more white people than other minority groups access treatment for mental health issues than people from BAME backgrounds and they have better outcomes.
A look at Covid era statistics and that seems very true. Although BAME’s happiness position going into Covid isn’t fully clear, we do know that the pandemic has impacted the happiness levels of people of colour with more bite, certainly for Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) men, who experienced a higher average increase in mental distress during Covid than White British men.
UCL’s July 20202 Societal Study report stated that people from BAME backgrounds recorded higher levels of depression and anxiety than the general population throughout lockdown, as well as showing lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
The report found that 21% of people from white backgrounds reported being lonely ‘often’ during lockdown, but this figure rose to 23% amongst those from BAME backgrounds. For people of colour, thoughts of death and self-harming through the pandemic have been much more prevalent than in the general population.
In self-harm, as much as 70% more prevalent.
The happiness experience of black communities in particular during 2020 perhaps can’t only be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. If Covid was the year’s biggest event, the death of George Floyd, a tense US election in its wake, and amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement, were events two, three and four.
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